The 113-mile (181-kilometer) drive on Highway 1 from mainland Florida to Key West induces sensory overload. Besides the natural beauty along the route—tidal flats, teal waters dotted by distant islands—the so-called Overseas Highway awes you in its own right as an engineering marvel. Its concrete stretches across impossible expanses of water, the Atlantic spreading out to the left, the Gulf to the right.
Highway 1 is festooned with classic Americana, from kitschy gift shops purveying seashell necklaces to burger stands offering shakes and fries. But that's just the half of it. Beneath the ocean surface lies a separate world of Technicolor fish and coral reefs. Below are the five best dive sites you'll encounter as you proceed from Key Largo, near the top of the island chain, down to Key West, at the end. At each spot, you'll park at a dive shop and motor out to the reef on a boat. The entire dive experience takes two to four hours, leaving ample time to watch the sunset and enjoy a seafood dinner. Meanwhile, non-divers will find plenty else to do, from snorkeling to exploring state parks to visiting museums. Major attractions are sited by mile marker, from MM 107 in Key Largo to MM 0 in Key West.
Begin in Key Largo
Key Largo calls itself the dive capital of the world. It's home to the 70-square-mile (181-square-kilometer) John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (MM 102.5; tel. 1 305 451 6300; www.pennekamppark.com). The park has a visitors center and beach, a good place to hone your snorkeling skills before boarding a dive boat. The best undersea attraction of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (floridakeys.noaa.gov) is the wreck of the Spiegel Grove (www.fla-keys.com/spiegelgrove), a 510-foot (155-meter) retired Navy ship sunk as an artificial reef in 2002 and now resting 130 feet (39 meters) underwater near Dixie Shoal. Fish you might spot include trumpetfish and angelfish lurking along the hull, which is covered with sponges and soft coral. You can also stop at Molasses Reef, suitable for snorkelers. Local dive operators include Ocean Divers (522 Caribbean Dr.; tel. 1 305 451 1113; oceandivers.com) and Amy Slate's Amoray Dive Resort (MM 104.5; tel. 1 305 451 3595; www.amoray.com), which offers morning coffee with its rooms and apartments.
In the area: Locals stop by the Marlin (MM 102.7; tel. 1 305 451 2454), a Cuban restaurant, for a café con leche and pastelitos (crispy, filled pastries; try the guava) before turning in to Pennekamp. After your dive, try Hobo's Cafe (MM 101.7; tel. 1 305 451 5888; hoboscafe.net), an authentic Keys eatery serving burgers and fresh fish.
Tavernier, your next stop, accesses the Conch Reef. This is perhaps the Keys' best drift dive, in which you descend at Point A, drift down current, then resurface at Point B, where the dive boat retrieves you. "It's one of the most popular ways to see the reef," says Brenda Mace, whose Conch Republic Divers (MM 90.8; tel. 1 305 852 1655; www.conchrepublicdivers.com) offers twice-daily reef and wreck dives. Other reefs near the southern end of Pennekamp, many with names as colorful as the fish, include Hens and Chickens, Pickles, and Alligator.
In the area: For breakfast, it's Harriette's (MM 95.7; tel. 1 305 852 8689), known for its biscuits and generous servings. After a long day, treat yourself at Snapper's Waterfront Restaurant (MM 94.5; tel. 1 305 852 5956; www.snapperskeylargo.com), frequented by celebrities. For a classic Keys lodging experience, stay at the quiet Kona Kai (MM 97.8; tel. 1 305 852 7200; www.konakairesort.com), a restored 1940s bayside resort. Before you leave the Upper Keys, visit the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum (MM 83, Islamorada; tel. 1 305 664 9737; www.divingmuseum.org), where you can try on antique diving equipment and see diving machines from the 1700s.
Duck Key and other parts of the middle section of the Keys are often overlooked by divers, but "from Tavernier to Big Pine Key is where you find the most pristine diving conditions," says Wendy Hall of Dive Duck Key (MM 61; tel. 1 305 289 4931; diveduckkey.com). "It's quieter, with fewer residents here, and not as many commercial dive operations, so there's less pressure on our reefs." Lost and Found Reef, for example, has abundant life, such as vast schools of goatfish. "We get tons of giant sea turtles and spotted eagle rays," says Hall. "We see them every day."
In the area: Hawks Cay (61 Hawks Cay Blvd., Duck Key; tel. 1 305 743 7000; www.hawkscay.com) is a major resort with its own restaurants and an enclosure where you can get in the water to interact with the dolphins. Its sizeable villas offer privacy and plenty of room for your dive gear. Little Italy (MM 68.5; tel. 1 305 664 4472) on Long Key is a favorite eatery serving Italian cuisine, steaks, and lots of seafood. In Marathon, the legendary lobster Reuben sandwich at Keys Fisheries Market and Marina (3502 Gulfview Ave., MM 48.5; tel. 1 305 743 4353; www.keysfisheries.com) is worth a short detour off the Overseas Highway. South of town, walk, bike, or take a ferry to historic Pigeon Key, where the railroad museum (MM 45; tel. 1 305 743 5999; www.pigeonkey.net) tells the story of the bygone era of industrialist and railroad magnate Henry Flagler, who built the first bridges linking Miami to Key West almost a century ago. In 1935, a hurricane flushed part of the railway into the Florida Bay. The surviving rail bridges were repurposed as roadway, and the Overseas Highway was born.
Looe Key, home of the offbeat Underwater Music Festival, is probably the most popular dive destination in the Lower Keys, the southern third of the island chain. And no wonder: No other site in the area has such dramatic underwater topography. Coral reefs rise from the seafloor into underwater mounds teeming with lobster and moray eels. Looe Key, serviced by Underseas, Inc. (MM 30.5, Big Pine Key; tel. 1 305 872 2700; www.flkeysdiveshops.com/lkdiveshops/), Looe Key Reef Resort & Dive Center (MM 27.5, Ramrod Key; tel. 1 305 872 2215; www.diveflakeys.com), and others, is especially attractive to snorkelers, who can readily view marine life from the surface and can easily free-dive to the tops of the mounds for an up-close look at the coral itself.
Big Pine Key
In the area: Swing by the No Name Pub on Big Pine Key (N. Watson Blvd.; tel. 1 305 872 9115; www.nonamepub.com) for pizza and a cold one after your dive. For a true Lower Keys immersion, check into the Sugarloaf Lodge (MM 17, Sugarloaf Key; tel. 1 305 745 3211; www.sugarloaflodge.net), a 31-room resort with private airstrip. Bahia Honda State Park (MM 37, Bahia Honda Key; tel. 1 305 872 2353; www.floridastateparks.org/bahiahonda) beckons the dive-weary or sunbather with the nicest beach experience in the Keys—an abundant sand shoreline set against the backdrop of one of Flagler's most impressive surviving rail bridges.
Key West, famous for its colorful locals, was also one of the first places in the Keys to be dived, says historian Tom Hambright. It's known for its easy, relatively shallow dives with copious coral and fish. The "Southernmost City" is a launching point to nearby reefs such as the Eastern Dry Rocks and Sand Key; several notable wrecks, including the Cayman Salvager and Joe's Tug; and more remote sites like the Dry Tortugas. The sites are so compelling, Hambright says, that before World War II, "one enthusiast would construct masks of wood and glass for friends and family to catch a glimpse of the reefs." Local dive shops include Dive Key West (3128 N. Roosevelt Blvd.; tel. 1 305 296 3823; www.divekeywest.com).
The Casa Marina Resort
In the area: Almost everything on the island is accessible by foot. The Casa Marina Resort (1500 Reynolds St.; tel. 1 305 296 3535; www.casamarinaresort.com), used as military housing during WWII, is a trove of history. You'll find old photos from the days when the only way to reach Key West was by boat or train and from the early years of the highway. Also visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum (907 Whitehead St.; tel. 1 305 294 1136; www.hemingwayhome.com) and the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum (200 Greene St.; tel. 1 305 294 2633; www.melfisher.org), which displays treasures salvaged from the sea. Good restaurants include the Caribbean-themed Bagatelle (115 Duval St.; tel. 1 305 296 6609; www.bagatellekeywest.com), where you might try the tuna tataki appetizer, and Mangoes (700 Duval St.; tel. 1 305 292 4606), for dining alfresco.
Traveling in winter avoids the summer and fall hurricane season, although for those interested in diving, summer offers the best water and wind conditions and hence peak visibility. Check current water and wind conditions at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Web site (http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/). For travel information, see the official tourism Web site www.fla-keys.com. From the car rental agencies at Miami International Airport, it's a 75-minute drive to Key Largo.
—Text by Christopher Elliott, adapted from National Geographic Traveler